Let’s talk about anxiety.
It’s not a topic that many of us talk about often. I’m not sure why this is; usually it’s depression that gets most of the media coverage (especially when it comes to postpartum issues), which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, considering nearly half of people who are diagnosed with depression are also diagnosed with anxiety, and anxiety disorders are the most common of all the mental illnesses in the United States, with 40 million adults ages 18 and over diagnosed – which doesn’t even count the teenagers.
So why don’t we talk about anxiety, especially as it relates to pregnancy and parenthood? Is it embarrassing? Uncomfortable? A private matter? Is it because the anxiety we typically link with parenthood and pregnancy is deemed “normal” – as in, “Of course you are anxious about creating a human/giving birth/raising a kid! It’s a daunting task!”? Is it because, in the age of Google, any little anxiety can be addressed and dispelled (or compounded) immediately? Is it because, once that anxiety is addressed, we go about our lives as if we were never anxious, until the next anxiety provokes us and the cycle begins again?
I’m sure if I searched around on the internet, I’d find quite a few women talking about anxiety and pregnancy/parenthood, but I know my close circle of friends doesn’t discuss it nearly as often as I’m sure it takes hold of their lives and, if they do discuss it, it’s after the fact. So, I’ve decided to spend a little time today talking about my personal experience with anxiety.
I started experiencing some form of anxiety in my sophomore year of college. At that time, it was probably triggered by a lot of things, including my imminent future life outside of the hallowed halls of my alma matter and my parents’ impending divorce, but the biggest trigger was a guy I dated for an incredibly short time, but with whom I became very close. He had a host of mental health issues, and I felt like I could save him. I couldn’t, by the way (which should surprise no one) and, even though he is now (as far as I know; we haven’t talked in a long while) living a perfectly happy and healthy life in New York, I am sure I had little to do with that. But that didn’t stop me from being concerned about his every move, no matter where he went. There were times when I couldn’t get ahold of him and I’d feel a gripping panic like I was absolutely sure something was going to happen to him or already had. I think the experts call that a “feeling of impending doom.” All I know is that I was so nervous, I could barely function. The only way I knew how to deal with this feeling was to find out if he was OK (and he always was), which I did by calling him an embarrassing number of times and, usually, crying. Eventually, I had to cut off contact with him because it was the healthiest thing for both of us, and my anxiety regarding him disappeared.
During that time, I did speak with a doctor about my anxiety because I wanted a referral to a therapist. Nothing was diagnosed, and no referral was given, but he did give me a sample pack of anti-depressants. Perhaps understandably, this was the beginning of my mistrust in the medical profession.
At some point, though, my anxiety transferred itself to other things, and stopped manifesting itself in a nervous panic, which made it harder to identify. It became more of an obsession over things I could control but couldn’t convince myself I was in control of, if that makes any sense. Usually during points of great stress in my life (trying to find a new job, getting married, after a kid brought a gun to school), I became intensely preoccupied with making sure my house/apartment was safe when I left it. I would check the locks a million times, check about 10 times to be sure all the lights were off, everything that was heated up (iron, curling iron, coffee pot, etc.) was unplugged, the oven was turned off. As you can imagine, it became pretty difficult to leave the house in the morning. I always did, and I was never late, which is probably why I never actually sought help for the issue. I was able to recognize it as anxiety, recognize why I was anxious, and trust that I’d just work through it eventually. Eventually has taken a while; I have been dealing with this off and on since 2008.
Incidentally, I also attribute my skin issues last year to this anxiety. The stress I was experiencing at school was just too much. Couple that with a Type A need to be perfect all of the time, and it becomes a bit of a dangerous mix.
This all sounds horrible, but the truth is, I was able to live a completely normal life. I made it to work on time, excelled at my job, built a successful relationship, bought and decorated a beautiful home, and eventually got pregnant. I went out with friends and family and, overall, enjoyed my life. In fact, if you saw me and I hadn’t told you I was experiencing anxiety, you probably would never know. There were just certain moments of every day that were difficult to manage, and I knew when those moments would be and could do nothing to prevent them.
For many women, pregnancy is a time of deep anxiety, especially if they’ve been prone to anxiety before. It should surprise no one, then, that my anxiety turned from the safety of my home to the safety of my fetus. I obsessed over lists of things not to do and not to eat. I slept very little at night, when the worries were at their worst, and Googled obsessively, becoming convinced I would have a miscarriage. It wasn’t until I started feeling downright sick that I knew everything was fine and, in a final acknowledgement that this was only hurting me (and the fetus), I gave up Google, gave up trying to avoid things not to do or eat (the list is actually surprisingly small, despite what Google and a few of the fear-mongering public would have you believe), and started asking my doctor all of my questions.
At this point, I mostly feel pretty good. I’m not panicked; I’m not checking my house a million times before I have to leave. My anxiety still exists, though it is centered around seeing people who I know will say something ignorant to me about my pregnancy and what I will say to respond to them. When I know I will have to see those people, I don’t panic, but I tend to get emotional and extremely nauseous – which can be a sign of anxiety in pregnancy, by the way – and want desperately to avoid the situation, even while I recognize that I can’t. I did speak with my new doctor about this, because it does put me at a greater risk for postpartum anxiety and it’s something to watch out for in case it gets worse. I’m hoping it doesn’t, but I guess you never know.
The bottom line, I think, is that more people should be talking about anxiety as they experience it. So many of my friends have shut out the world postpartum and only talked about their anxiety later, after it has dissipated, if it ever does. Not all anxiety can be treated the way I have dealt with it – in fact, I don’t recommend it. Talk to your doctor if you are feeling anxiety. If he or she gives you a packet of pills and that’s not what you want to try as a first option of treatment, find a new doctor. This was a mistake I wish I didn’t make all those years ago; I knew therapy would have helped immensely, but thought all doctors would have been pill-happy like the one I saw. As it turns out, my current doctor was very receptive and able to talk to me about ways of managing anxiety without medication, and warning signs for both me and Tim to look out for in case it gets much worse.
Anxiety is nothing to mess around with, and it isn’t always related to a situation, even though a certain situation might bring it on. This, of course, makes it incredibly difficult to identify. Find a healthcare professional you trust, and some friends you can talk to, if you are worried about your anxiety, even if you think it’s manageable or mild. There are things that will help.
I’ll try to update more about this off and on, though I am hoping that it doesn’t get worse and I won’t have to. I just think it’s important to get this out there and talk about it as much as we can.